When Learning to Swim is a Privilege 


It was mostly toddlers who drowned off the coast of Libya.* Toddlers who had never paddled chubby legs in YMCA pools; who had never learned to hold their breath under water; whose last, terrible moments have to be given into the arms of God – because if not, life could not go on. 


I only took swimming lessons for one year while growing up. It was a year when we lived in the United States and every Wednesday Carin Waaramaa, me, and our two little brothers would go to the YMCA on a high hill in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. After an hour of breast stroke and back stroke, of treading water and learning to hold our breath, we would change back into street clothes and watch the ending of Dark Shadows in a television perched high on the wall of a waiting room. Dark Shadows was a no-no at both of our homes, so despite water logged ears, and chlorine-shot eyes we would watch until one of our mothers came to pick us up. 

I am still not a good swimmer, because one year is hardly enough to make you water safe, let alone proficient. My lack of comfort with swimming repeated itself in the next generation. Raising my children in Pakistan and the Middle East, we had limited access to pools, and though they all learned to swim, they are hardly proficient. 

The opposite is true for my husband. Indeed, he is a strong swimmer. He began as a toddler in Florida and only got better through the years. 


Why don’t they just swim to safety?” says someone when I mention the number of refugees who have drowned while trying to reach the safety of land and a new life. I am incredulous and bite back a scathing reply. 

Learning to swim is a privilege. In fact, more than half of the world’s population cannot swim.** Considering poverty levels and the large populace that live in massive cities around the world, this does not surprise me, nor should it surprise anybody. Knowing how to swim is not a guarantee for all the children and adults of the world. Many will never have the opportunity to learn. 

Yet crossing bodies of water is a primary way of escape for refugees caught in untenable situations and circumstances, no longer safe in the places they call home. 

The International Organization for Migration approximates that more than 5,000 died last year in attempting to cross bodies of water. Boats, overcrowded because of greedy owners, pile far more people than they should, charging too much for those desperate for safety and willing to pay any price. Even when the boats are not overcrowded, if a large ocean wave pummels refugees overboard, it is unlikely that any can swim to safety. 

I know all this, yet still this latest headline has me weeping. Toddlers who should be doing nothing more than learning to play and develop normally are drowned at sea. The atrocity of this sickens me. 


Two years ago my friend Farhan reached out to me. I met Farhan at a Yezidi refugee camp in Turkey. Farhan is married with two little boys. He is a gifted linguist and translator, trained and used by the U.S. Army. There was no future where he was, and he was desperate to leave Turkey. Through a United Nations connection in Ankara, we were able to help him get registered. When the date came for his first interview, we gasped in dismay. The date was for 2022 – 7 years from the date at the time. So Farhan took matters into his own hands. He found a boat that would take him and his family to Europe. He arrived safely and is now settled in Germany. Farhan’ family did not end up a headline, but many are not so lucky. 


There are many things in our world that are privileges, not rights. When we read the headlines through eyes and lives of privilege, we forget this and we grow blind to the suffering of others. So as I pray for those moms who lost their toddlers at sea, I voice another prayer. 

May God heal the eye sight of those of us who live in privilege and safety, and may we see the world with clearer vision. Only then can we pray with more wisdom and greater passion. 

*Source – NBC News 

**Source – MySwimPro

3 thoughts on “When Learning to Swim is a Privilege 

  1. I remember my mom wondering why Muslim women didn’t just leave their husband’s when they were abused. I don’t know if I ever got her to understand the plight of a village woman in an abusive home, she just could not imagine the prohibitions and norms that rule there. Open our eyes, Lord, to see not just Jesus, but also those for whom He died.

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  2. I also only had one year of swim lessons. At my second primary school in the Bahamas 🇧🇸 that was our gym class. Native Bahamians swim almost from birth, so I was easily the slowest swimmer in my class.

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